Forum held on finalists for Taft principal vacancy


Each of the three finalists for the principal vacancy at Taft High School were asked at a June 9 candidates forum how the school can improve its perception in the community so that more of the area’s top-achieving students will choose Taft instead of a selective enrollment school.

Each of the finalists, Taft acting principal Carolyn Rownd, Whitney Young High School assistant principal Mark Grishaber and Foreman High School assistant principal Dr. Staci Stratigakes, were asked the same questions by the forum’s moderator, Taft High School Local School Council chairwoman Lisa Schwieger. The questions were based on feedback that the council collected from the school community prior to the forum.

The council planned to discuss the finalists’ responses during a closed-door session at its June 10 meeting and then hold a second meeting this week to vote on awarding a 4-year contract to one of the candidates. A principal vacancy was created at the school when Mary Kay Cappitelli resigned in April due to medical reasons.

Stratigakes said that among her first acts as principal would be to hold a community forum with the school’s stakeholders to discuss the perceptions of Taft and what changes are needed for the school. She said that it is worrisome that 60 percent of Taft’s Seventh and Eighth Grade Academic Center students leave after eighth grade to attend a gifted high school instead of remaining at Taft.

Stratigakes distributed a proposed strategic plan that she said is intended to make Taft a Tier 1 school, which is the designation that the Chicago Public Schools gives its top schools. The plan calls for school in 2015 to increase its attendance rate to 95 percent (90.6 percent this year) and its average ACT score to 20 (18.9), while posting double-digit gains in reading and science.

Stratigakes said that she has the experience of making important budget decisions and that her first priority will be keeping good teachers in the classroom when budget cuts are required. She said that at Foreman this year, an administrative position had to be cut in order to save two teaching positions.

Stratigakes said that as Taft’s principal she hopes that teachers would “feel supported and valued” and that despite the challenges facing the school, it has its successes. “There are so many things that work. There already is a tradition of excellence,” said Stratigakes, a Sauganash resident, who once worked in an administrative post at an area network for CPS.

Grishaber said that one of the best ways to attract top students would be “to get them in door” while they are in grade school by hosting a variety of tournaments so that they can see the facility and meet the teachers. Another effective recruiting tool would be to create more student clubs, as the smaller Whitney Young has more than 100 clubs compared to the 67 listed on Taft’s Web site, he said.

“We have to make it a good school for the kids that are here and an option for the other students,” said Grishaber, a former teacher at Saint Patrick High School. “We can get the job done and have fun.”

Grishaber said that he finds troublesome that Taft’s average ACT score is about 1 ½ points below the state norm and that the school’s 4-year graduation rate is 75 percent. While too much emphasis can be placed on standardized test scores, the ACT “number gets kids into college,” he said.

Grishaber also cited a recent study that examined the overall performance of the state’s high schools. “Taft was in the bottom third in Illinois. Are you kidding me?” he said.

Grishaber said that his master’s degree in business administration will help get him through the yearly budget process and that as a lifelong Northwest Side resident, he has a good feel for the community’s expectations for Taft. “I know the neighborhood. I live seven blocks from here,” he said.

Rownd was named Taft’s acting principal in November when Cappitelli went on a medical leave.  She is on loan to Taft until June 30, when she is expected to return to her position as assistant principal at Jones College Prep High School unless the Taft LSC awards her with a 4-year contract.

Rownd said that her nearly eight months at Taft have exceeded her expectations. “What I do know now is Taft is an amazing school. I have great teachers,” she said.  “Lastly I have a great community behind me. Taft is a great place to be.”

One of the challenges facing Taft is that many community members still perceive it as the same school it was in the 1980s and 1990s. “Taft is as solid as any place. You need to meet the children,” she said. “I need to take my faculty out to the community and share them with you.”

Rownd said that she has the background to help bring academic improvement to Taft. She said that while working as a teacher and admissions director at Northside Prep High School, she help “build a curriculum at a school that is number one in the state” and that Jones is “now number three in the state.”

Rownd said that she strives to keep the faculty involved in curriculum decisions and relies on input from Taft’s instructional leadership team. The Taft LSC recently approved a budget and an improvement work plan that Rownd submitted, and Rownd earlier in the school year implemented several changes, including the opening of a second student entrance, in an effort to decrease student tardiness.

Each of the finalists said that they have “open door” policies in which they return phone calls and respond to e-mails and that they would make sure Taft’s achievements are publicized to the community.

Each candidate also discussed the importance of Taft’s transition to a wall-to-wall international baccalaureate school, which requires the implementation independent student projects and critical thinking throughout the curriculum.

Rownd said that the international baccalaureate program stresses that students should “find the answer, not be given the answers,” while Grishaber said that the program generates a passion for learning among students. Stratigakes said that teachers must be given the proper training for the program to be effective.

The candidates also met with a group of Taft students and were taken on tours of the school. About 200 people attended the forum, and audience members were given a survey in which they were asked to rank the candidates.

To receive a principal contract, a candidate must receive seven out of the 11 votes from the council. If council members cannot on agree on a candidate, they can leave the decision to the school system, which will choose among the finalists.

Pictured are the finalists (from left): Taft acting principal Carolyn Rownd, Whitney Young assistant principal Mark Grishaber and Foremen assistant principal Dr. Staci Stratigakes.

Also pictured is Principal Selection Committee chairman Sam Duarte.